Metro Gallery Digital Billboard

The new digital billboard above metro gallery alternates between artist work and ads, further blurring the line between art and commerce. (J.M. Giordano / July 15, 2014)

As an artist who has been involved in Artscape over the years, I was really excited to meet the new “Mr. Artscape,” as people have tended to think of the festival’s visual-arts coordinator, most recently erstwhile CP designer Jim Lucio and before that artist Gary Kachadourian. Gary and Jim are both good friends of mine, so I thought maybe I could be friends with the new Mr. Artscape too. 

After sending a few emails to the folks at the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA), they invited me over to explain in person that Mr. Artscape is not a real position. I have been to the BOPA offices plenty of times in the past—this is the first year in the past four years that I haven’t done an installation for Artscape—but this time was a whole new, informative experience. There’s this one conference room I had never been in that is amazing and reminds me of a David Hockney painting, because the floor-to-ceiling window looks out on a nice 1960s midcentury modern office building and there’s a big tropical houseplant next to it. I really wanted to take a picture—that plant in front of the cool grey façade of the building across the street was just really weirdly beautiful—but I didn’t want to seem any less professional while fumbling with an iPad sitting across the table from a room full of people who were very, very patiently trying to explain to me that there is no Mr. Artscape. 

I did, however, learn that there is a Ms. Artscape! Kathleen Hornig has had the title of “Director of Festivals” for 13 years. This is a totally different position from the “Mr. Artscape” (aka visual arts coordinator) position that Jim and Gary held. Although she admitted that she is technically “in charge of Artscape” (my words, to which she nodded with a humble smile), she stressed to me that Artscape is a group effort, and introduced me to the whole Artscape family. This year, the team includes Lou Joseph (visual arts specialist), Maggie Villegas (public art project specialist), C. Ryan Patterson (public arts administrator), and Kim Domanski (public art coordinator). I didn’t get to talk to Kim because she was out pouring concrete for the sculpture park on the Mount Royal median, but I have met her many times in the past and she is a lovely person so I didn’t feel too cheated. 

Very rudely, in the middle of introductions, I blurted out, “Just to clear this up for everyone at City Paper . . . Who is the new Jim?!” to which Tracy Baskerville (communications director) replied, “Well . . . I guess, technically, it is . . . Lou. I mean, he has that position.” Case closed. Except, I kind of got the feeling that BOPA is trying very hard to downplay the “visual arts specialist” position this year. “Mr. Artscape” is dead. In the past, the visual arts coordinator has been the face of Artscape for the media and exercised a seemingly more dominant curatorial role. This year, the BOPA staff seem to be hanging back and facilitating logistics for outside curators. This might turn out to make for an interesting (if potentially inconsistent) festival. But it makes for a shitty Q&A if you’re someone who really just wants to interview a curator about his or her concept (despite the fact that all of the above coordinators and specialists and administrators and directors are very, very nice people). 

I left feeling a little disappointed in the fact that I didn’t have a Mr. Artscape to talk shop with anymore (and I didn’t even get a picture of the plant with the window). In the past, as an artist, I’ve enjoyed working in the singularly bizarre context of Artscape. I mean, I fucking HATE art cars, but there’s really few other places where totally normal people from the suburbs and totally crazy people who live under bridges come together over funnel cake and art installations and R&B acts from the ’90s that you forgot existed but everyone is weirdly really excited to see. There’s this compelling bleed-over between the act of shopping and the act of taking in spectacle and the act of viewing art that typically only happens with rich art-world people at commercial art fairs. Artists have made so much self-referential, institutionally critiquing art in that arena that there’s really nothing left to say. At Artscape, you get to observe that commercial/conceptual/banal singularity with hundreds of thousands of people who don’t give a shit about “post-structuralism” or Jeff Koons on a scale of more blatant advertising, more pedestrian products for consumption, and art that is either much more earnest or much more half-assed. In no way is that a criticism of Artscape; I think it’s an amazingly fertile ground for art making and viewing that I wish more people took more seriously.

This year, the convergence of commerce, spectacle, and artwork is perhaps most evident in the new digital billboard on Charles and Lanvale, atop Metro Gallery. The operators of the sign, Shanklin Media, have donated use of the screen for arts programing during Artscape. I watched it for several minutes the other day and was struck by how indistinguishable some advertisements were from some art pieces. Increasingly, the DIS Magazine generation makes art that looks like commerce, and the advertising industry mines postmodern strategies for selling you crap. It’s a beautifully hypnotic feedback loop, like pointing a video camera at the television it’s connected to. I wish the video billboard had been there for the piece I worked on for Artscape’s 1982-themed 30th anniversary. It was a multi-channel video installation that considered contemporary Baltimore as the dystopian city of the 2010s predicted by “Blade Runner” in 1982. A lady eating a blooming onion told me, “This is the worst haunted house I’ve ever been to! It wasn’t scary at all!”

This year, the distinction between amusement park attraction and art installation will be blurred further. “Field Day”—curated by Michael Benevento, Jason Corace, and Andrew Liang—will blanket the Charles Street bridge with participatory games by artists. That’s not to say there isn’t room for content and subversion; artists Scott Pennington and Adam Franchino are collaborating on activities such as ‘Political Punk Rack’ and ‘Nuclear Battleship Duck Pond.’

“Field Day” is one component of Artscape’s identity this year; the overall theme is “Join the Movement.” Despite sounding like an enticement to enter a cult or slogan to combat childhood obesity, it’s actually a great idea. The festival will be heavy with dance and performance, which are distinct enough from commodity but accessible enough to bring some serious work into the mix without relying too heavily on kitsch. The Mount Royal median, however, is going to be devoted to “Mobiles, Whirligigs, Automata, Rube-Goldbergs, and Other Kinetic Contraptions,” which sounds like it’s going to be extremely kitschy. The upside of this, by happy accident, is that it might provide some kind of conceptual gateway for viewers from the fair to the Sondheim finalist show, which is itself heavily comprised of kinetic works—especially that of Neil Feather, the $25,000 prize winner; maybe someone will see these and decide they want to see more art with moving parts and actually go to the Walters. 

The issue of most artwork being tucked away inside buildings, away from the spectacle, has always been a bit of a problem. But this year, capable curators Marian April Glebes, Margo Benson Malter, and Nick Peelor are organizing the Alternative Art Fair in the parking garage at 1714 Charles St. It will provide artists an opportunity to show more serious work in an indoor/outdoor space that’s permeable to the street, but sheltered from the notoriously crappy July weather. I’ve actually wanted to do this every year, and I’m equal parts glad that someone finally is and sad that I’m not. The garage, which was on hiatus last year, has always been my favorite part of Artscape; the place where I go to escape the rain, people handing me flyers for bathtub liners, and temptations of funnel cake. And Marian always has an extra cold beer for me when I’ve been baking in the sun all day. This year, when I’m enjoying drinking in the street, I’ll pour some out for Mr. Artscape. RIP, imaginary interviewee. 



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